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Recovering from a Physical Failure

In the worst cases of physical failure, the actual drive innards may require removal to a new housing. If your drive is making strange noises, such as loud grinding or tapping, it's best to leave data recovery to a trained professional. But most physical failures don't require such extreme measures.

Whether a drive has failed physically or due to a software error, it's important to take cautionary measures prior to attempting recovery. Using data-recovery software to hit the physical disk to gather information about the disk contents increases the risk of further data loss. To prevent additional damage, an important first step is to create an image of the drive by using an imaging tool. If the damaged drive happens to be the drive containing the operating system, at all costs avoid booting the drive. A boot operation reads from the drive and writes to the drive, multiplying the risk of further damage.

Desktop PCs

For a desktop system, the best practice is to take the problem disk out of the equation. Disconnect the boot drive and replace it with a new drive, making sure that the new drive has enough capacity to store an operating system and the entire contents of your old drive. Install an operating system on the new drive. After completing the operating system install, reconnect the old drive as a slave unit or install it in an external case and connect the damaged drive via USB or FireWire.

By creating a new primary drive, you can run disk-imaging software on the new drive, preventing the need for writing additional data to the old drive.


In a Windows XP system, it's important to disconnect the current boot partition. Attempting to install the OS on the new drive results in temp files being written to the old drive, because Windows XP looks for any existing install and stores all the setup drivers on the current primary boot disk.

At this point in the process, you should install a disk-imaging application such as Norton Ghost or the disk-imaging tool bundled with the drive-recovery application GetDataBack (covered shortly). Create an image of the damaged drive on your new drive. The image will be used to recover the missing data from the damaged drive.

Laptop PCs

Recovering data from a laptop drive is more complicated than from a desktop system. Laptop hard drives are notoriously difficult to remove, and removal may even void the machine's warranty. Windows XP will install to an external hard drive, but you still risk further data corruption when temp files are written to the damaged drive during the installation process. In some cases, you can avoid further data damage by disabling the IDE controller for the damaged drive in the system BIOS. In my case, disabling the IDE controller at the BIOS level also made the CD drive nonfunctional, making it impossible to transfer files from the install CD in order to install Windows XP on the external drive.

Instead of trying to boot from a hard drive, booting from a CD with all the necessary operating system components is the safest bet. As part of my recovery process, I created a bootable CD with BartPE, which uses core Windows components and bundles data-recovery applications on the CD in one self-contained package. BartPE is a mini operating system with a graphical user interface, which requires files included on either a Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 install CD. BartPE creates a mini OS, valid for 24 hours, to perform diagnostic recovery of lost files. The OS automatically reboots at the 24-hour mark, so this is by no means a permanent solution. In most cases, however, 24 hours is plenty of time to recover from virtually any drive failure. I wasted countless hours on several other recovery attempts before discovering BartPE. Had I not found this free tool, I probably would have failed in my data-recovery attempt.

After creating a BartPE bootable disk by following the instructions at the BartPE site, change the boot order of your laptop in the BIOS, so that the CD drive is the first option. Next, you need to connect an external drive to write the image file. BartPE will launch from the drive, giving you full access to the software apps built into the bootable CD, as well as providing read and write access to your damaged drive. A few key recovery tools offer versions designed specifically for use with BartPE, which simplifies the recovery process using the CD-based temporary OS. In the past five years, I've had several encounters with damaged drives. My favorite software tool is GetDataBack for NTFS (there's also at FAT version), because it always succeeds in recovering data where other attempts failed.

As I mentioned earlier, GetDataBack includes a drive-imaging tool, which makes a replica of the drive on a second hard drive. The recovery portion of the tool scans the image far more quickly than it could possibly work through damaged sectors on a drive, resulting in a solid solution for getting back all the missing data. In most cases, it will also recover deleted files. My previous experience with drive failures has always been on servers or desktop systems, where it was a simple matter to swap the drive and run recovery software. GetDataBack offers a standalone EXE and a plug-in version for BartPE.

After creating the image of the damaged drive, run the drive-recovery portion of GetDataBack against the image, which allows you to extract all the important data on your hard drive.

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